Dina Klimkina, Dexter Horne, and Jorden Jones
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require government agencies receiving federal funding to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to persons with disabilities. However, a 2018 study by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation found that only 59% of state websites passed accessibility standards, while 9% of state websites were highly inaccessible.
As the Internet is a primary medium for the transmission of information, the importance of providing equal access and opportunity to all individuals cannot be overstated. State websites are the key way in which many individuals, including those with disabilities, receive access to important services, including information on public health and safety, employment supports and services, tax information, community services, and information on state and local officials. Even more so, as states deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public is accessing state websites on information on vaccinations, testing, community protocols, unemployment information, protocols on returning to work, and access to other critical COVID-19 supports and services.
As such, it is important that state websites are clear, easy to navigate, and can be used by people of varying abilities. Failure to comply with web accessibility standards can be potentially subject to legal action. This blog describes the role and goal of web accessibility standards and provides a series of state policy examples addressing accessible websites.
“Accessible ICT [or information and communication technologies]… and assistive technology are critical factors in ensuring fuller participation by people with disabilities…” Work Matters: A framework for States on Workforce Development for People with Disabilities.
Web Accessibility Standards
Websites which are designed without proper attention to accessibility issues can create unnecessary barriers for people with disabilities. Yet, there are simple features that can be built into a web page which can assist individuals with disabilities, such as using plain language, tagging images, captioning videos, and adding headings and reading order to organize the structure of content, and ensuring clear color contrasts, among other tools.
For example, formatting styles like “heading 1” and “heading 2” make writing more accessible when used for structural purposes, instead of merely aesthetic ones. Some visually impaired users rely on screen readers, a technology that dictates text on a computer screen, which work best when headings and subheading accurately order content (i.e. only use the “Title” style on the title and nowhere else on the webpage).
Enhancing website accessibility is the first step toward Universal Design. Universal Design is a strategy for designing web content, places, products, and operational systems and services that are accessible, understandable, and usable to the most diverse range of people possible, regardless of ability. Its key principles are simplicity, flexibility, and efficiency. These universal accessibility practices are an attainable way to accommodate people with disabilities who are seeking information, employment, or even state services, like the COVID-19 vaccine or other related resources.
Several tools have been developed to help states and businesses ensure their websites and online content is accessible. For example, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility. This includes natural information (text, images, sounds, etc.) and code that defines structure and presentation. For each guideline, there are testable success criteria that are expressed in three levels: A, AA, and AAA. Level A represent the most basic web accessibility features, while Level AAA represent the most complex.
Accessibility Standards in the States
Despite federal provisions, web accessibility throughout the United States is dependent on varying state policies and practices. Most states have some policy on accessibility for government websites. Many base their policies on Section 508 and/or the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines previously established. Others have passed legislation on accessibility or developed partnerships with local agencies to test for accessibility. States such as Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri, Massachusetts, Arizona, and others have been highlighted by U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) for their provisions surrounding web accessibility.
Legislation on Accessibility
In 2017, California passed Assembly Bill No. 434 which requires that all state agency chief information officers post on the home page of the agency’s or entity’s Internet Web site a signed certification that the agency’s or entity’s Internet Web site is in compliance with Sections 7405 and 11135, and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.
Illinois passed the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act (IITAA) requiring Illinois agencies and universities to ensure their websites, systems, and other information technologies are accessible to persons with disabilities. In accordance with Section 508, the updated IITAA 2.0 Standard applies to information technology developed, procured, or sustainably modified after January 18, 2018.
In 2004, the Oklahoma Legislature passed the Oklahoma Electronic Information Technology Accessibility Act (EITA) modeling Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. The law improves the accessibility of electronic and information technology pertaining to state agencies, postsecondary institutions, and the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education system. Furthermore, House Bill 1170 (introduced in 2009) created the position of Chief Information Officer and reflects new section numbers for Oklahoma’s 508 law.
Missouri state law (RSMO 191.863) requires state agencies to develop and procure accessible information technology unless an undue burden would be imposed. Missouri’s law defines information technology the same as Section 508. The statute also charges the Missouri Assistive Technology Council (MoAT) and the Office of Information Technology (OIT) with responsibility for adopting standards to be used by state agencies in the procurement or development of accessible information technology.
Non-Legislative Mechanisms: Accessibility Standards and Partnerships
Alabama developed a set of standards for web page design in order to ensure equal access to electronic and information technologies maintained by alabama.gov. Alabama state websites have adopted the Design of HTML Pages set by the W3C and Access Board to increase accessibility. These standards include the use of alternative text on every graphic, providing alternate means for accessing online forms (such as by phone), and ensuring that websites are compatible with a range of browsers, among other provisions.
In 2017, New Jersey Office of Information Technology released a Web Accessibility Policy expressing their commitment to meeting or exceeding the recommendations of the WCAG Guidelines. Similarly, Maine’s policy sets accessible design standards for websites and has committed the state to incorporating the use of accessibility testing, developing a training program for Maine IT staff, promoting the use of Universal Design Principles and Inclusive Design in state government, and reviewing state IT procurement processes to ensure vendors are aware of accessibility requirements.
Some states have also committed to working with individuals in the disability community to ensure accessibility. Massachusetts and Georgia have both developed community partnerships to test the accessibility of their websites.
For more information on digital accessibility, accessible technology and accommodations check out the following resources:
The Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology (PEAT): Digital Accessibility webpage
The Job Accommodation Network’s (JAN) guidance on designing accessible websites and online applications
For a free tool that assess the accessibility of your website, visit: https://wave.webaim.org/